All entries for February 2012

February 26, 2012

Much Ado about Nothing (Demi–Paradise Productions) @ Lancaster Castle

Writing about web page http://www.demiparadiseproductions.co.uk/index.html

Location can be a blessing or a curse for a production. Site-specific theatre is one thing, where the play is written or adapted specifically for the area in which it will be realised; but Shakespeare transplanted into grand locations can run the risk of not mapping consistently onto its surroundings, or of the scenery overwhelming the performance. As such, I was interested to see how Demi-Paradise Productions managed the balance in their new Much Ado about Nothing, staged at the spectacular Lancaster Castle.

It’s fair to say that the scenery was the star of the production, and to its credit the company had thought carefully about the arrangement of space and the specificity of location. The central aborted wedding scene took place in the adjacent Priory Church, decorated as if for a wedding, and the splendour of the surroundings gave Claudio’s violent rejection of Hero an almost sacrilegious feel. The working Crown Court of the castle provided the location for the arraignment of Conrade and Borachio, with the audience seated as jurors and witnesses while the defendants took their appropriate places in the boxes. More often, however, it was the shape of the spaces rather than their specificity that impressed. The famous Shire Hall in which the opening and closing scenes were set, with its splendid roof and portraits, rather distracted from the action. More successful were the two overhearing scenes, located in an ancient torture chamber, Hadrian's Tower. While the memories of that place (chains hung from the walls) jarred with the tone of the scenes, the cramped quarters force an intimacy on actors and audience that drew out attention to the nuances of the performances.

Despite the distractions of the environment, and of the necessity to undertake reasonable walks between scenes, the performances still shone through. This was a traditional production, with a generically “period” setting that tended most strongly towards Regency (thus evoking an Austenian feel in the country dancing and wedding preparations). Costumes established that this was a play about the English privileged classes, and the company maintained a holiday atmosphere throughout. While the very safe romantic (if not Romantic) approach risked dullness, the company’s facility with the dynamics of its space benefitted it tremendously.

The standout was the first, cramped overhearing scene. With the audience arranged in traverse on crowded benches, the actors had a tiny gangway in which to perform. The torture chamber sat at the foot of the tower, and a viewing gallery above allowed Richard Hand's Benedick to appear early, looking down on the trapped audience below. When the lower level filled with the men, Benedick sneaked down and spent the scene moving around the audience, peering out and, in one memorable moment, screaming as James Jowett's Claudio stamped hard on his outstretched hand, his voice blending with Claudio’s own shout of “Oh!” In the tiny environment, though, the actors were able to layer their performances with expression. George Telfer's Don John entered the space to report Hero’s infidelity, and Claudio stepped in close to him, their noses practically touching, their eyes gazing hard into one another’s. The energy and intensity of this moment, and others liked it, made this a very immediate Much Ado, foregrounding the imaginative psychology and emotional import of the plot.

The same could be said of the wedding scene, in which the three-dimensional space allowed for a degree of audience choice in what was viewed. Immediately prior to the scene, some of my companions noticed Don John and Nicola Jayne Ingram's Margaret in the foyer of the castle, the former giving the latter harsh instruction; a moment I missed as we were swept past to the church. Inside the church, we were able to watch Margaret reacting, ashen-faced, to Hero’s disgrace, and the face of the priest as he stepped back slightly from the action and began assessing his options.

The majority of the performances had gusto if not experimental invention. Gemma North's Beatrice was unglamorous but lively, quick-witted and with an amusing range of scornful facial expressions. Hand's Benedick, meanwhile, was wired and cutting, with an unusual tendency towards maturity that manifested in his calm, quiet responses to Beatrice and Claudio in the second half. Yet the two had clear fun with their wooing, Benedick in particular revelling in the silliness of the rhyming scene. Lisa-Marie Hoctor's Hero was surprisingly similar in energy and confidence to Beatrice, taking a lively role in dancing and plotting, and in manipulating Claire Lever's Ursula during the overhearing scene, who was deliberately presented as an appalling actress to add to the comic effect. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Jowett's Claudio, who had an aggressive impetuosity to him that rendered the character slightly dangerous when squaring up to Don John and Benedick. Claudio’s intensity and self-assurance made the revelation of Don John’s plot a particular blow, reducing him to a broken shadow of himself.

Among the other performances, Telfer's Don John stood out: a dignified, older villain with a sardonic and authoritative air. In an early scene, Nicholas Camm's Borachio overstepped himself with the ingenuity of his plot and the seated John held out his hand to be helped up. As Borachio pulled him to his feet, John suddenly stepped forward and forced Borachio back against a wall, re-establishing his authority in what felt to me an unnecessarily physical show of strength. However, there remained a sense throughout the play of the threat posed by John.

More amusing were Howard Chadwick's Dogberry and Ingram's Verges, played as bickering husband and wife. These scenes were played as pure slapstick, and were often amusing, particularly in Dogberry’s patronising apologies for his wife. However, their scenes were often milked long past acceptability, particularly at the opening of the arraignment scene when the two characters mimed along to an offstage chorus of folk songs for no discernible or amusing reason. The more Punch-and-Judy-esque aspects of these characters did serve to mitigate any seriousness occasioned in the main plot however.

The strength of the local actors, almost all with broad Lancashire accents, was in their easy familiarity with each other. The scripted improvisation that characterises Much Ado, a play in which characters frequently ‘forget’ lines or misspeak, here felt easy and natural, the company evoking the formal dynamics of the Regency-era dating game and creating a sense of genuine investment in each other. This is, I think, one of the more difficult effects for an ensemble to achieve, and the seemingly genuine reactions went a long way towards helping an embattled audience warm to the play.

The main problem of the production was its length. At around three and a half hours, and with a great deal of walking and movement between scenes, the action felt dragged out and too leisurely, becoming at times almost pageant-like in its slow progression of scenes. As a tour of Lancaster Castle this was phenomenal; as a coherent production of Much Ado, it lacked the focus and pace to be truly great. However, some fine performances and an inventive use of space made this a pleasant experience. While not revolutionising the play for me, it did serve to bring a personal touch to the play while also showcasing a glorious venue.


February 19, 2012

Coriolanus: The Shooting Script

Writing about web page http://www.amazon.co.uk/Coriolanus-Shooting-Script-Newmarket/dp/006220257X

I've just been sent a copy of Coriolanus: The Shooting Script by the good folks at Harper Collins. This is part of an ongoing series of carefully packaged and attractive scripts, offering the film text along with insights from the filmmakers, and it's a fascinating read after seeing the film.

Coriolanus

John Logan's introduction offers a fascinating insight into the rationale behind the heavily edited script. Specifically, they tried to narrow in on the personal story, using "the tools of cinema" to probe "into the most private corners and darkest rooms" (ix). The private and psychological story took precedence over the public elements.

In filmic terms, Coriolanus is compared to the titular protagonists of Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia. He is "similarly opaque and unknowable; he's neurotic, violent, degraded, and ennobled simultaneously. He is purely and austerely himself" (viii). This tallies with the finished version, particularly its closing scene, which the screenplay describes simply as follows:

Coriolanus' body is awkwardly tossed into the back of an open truck. Like a sack of potatoes.

Sprawled ungainly in death.

No ritual or ceremony. No honor.

Snap to black. (104)

The script itself is surprisingly poetic, images described in terms of their effect rather than their realisation. The Volscian camp is "like something from LORD OF THE FLIES" (82), and the raging of the mob is descibred as "a terrifying spectacle of sudden mob rage, only a razor-thin edge to violence" (46). As a way into thinking about the process of creating a filmic language, this is a valuable resource.

Longer scene notes by Logan go into interpretation of specific moments. I was particularly interested in Logan's admission that the film's "theatrical purple patch" is the speech immediately following Coriolanus' banishment, where he turns his rejection back on his persecutors (110). Logan recognises the importance of the Act 3 turn, and interestingly relates it to films such as Gladiator and Any Given Sunday, which spin on a central dime. He also discusses the reasons for Menenius' suicide, the shower scene where Auficius shaves Coriolanus' head, and the decision not to cut back to Volumnia in the final moments. The exposure of the process is continually enlightening, serving to support and justify the purpose of the film.

Finally, as well as some glossy stills from the shoot, there's an interview with Ralph Fiennes himself which discusses what drew him to the character and film. Fascinatingly, his choices of cinematic references are films such as The Battle of Algiers, hearkening more towards the documentary and the public. It becomes clear that it is this public focus that Fiennes brought to the film, providing the context for Logan's more character-focused script.

This will be a great teaching resource for anyone working on the film, but it's also a great read for anyone interested in Shakespeare or in filmmaking in general. I'll be interested to look out some other entries in the series, but as a companion to Fiennes's excellent film, it works beautifully.


February 17, 2012

Measure for Measure (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford

Onto a bare stage strode Raymond Coulthard’s Duke. Smiling to the audience, he raised his arms and, with commanding gestures, caused the house lights to be brought down, the music to stop and the on-stage lamps to illuminate. From its very beginning, Roxana Silbert’s new production of Measure for Measure established the Duke’s absolute control of his domain, stage and city. Yet even more striking was the smile he wore as he manipulated his surroundings. This was a Duke who delighted in control, and in the display of control.

The Vienna of this production had structures of sexual control built into its very fabric. The Duke and Angelo both wore strap-on leather corsets as part of their daily costume, and the Duke was attended by French maids and dominatrices. The set included living props: two women in S&M gear stood either side of the stage with spiked lampshades on their heads, departing at the click of a finger when their absence was required. Upstage, hundreds of straightened whips hung from the ceiling, providing a translucent curtain behind which could be concealed the play’s various eavesdroppers, as well as silence scenes of Vienna’s underworld sex scene. And in noisy sequences, Lucio, Pompey and their fellows engaged in a series of submission and domination games, playing out collective fantasies of control.

The Duke’s own choice of role-playing servants and fetish furniture spoke to his flaunting of control, as did his use of magic. His various letters, commissions and seals appeared skilfully from nowhere in his hands, often accompanied by a knowing nod to the audience and appeal for applause. His insistence on drawing attention to his own skill served on the one hand to ingratiate him with the audience, but on the other to set him apart, inculcating the relationship of awe and submission that inevitably underpins the conjurer/spectator dynamic. If his clear skill and awareness meant that an audience could be assured that the play’s conclusion would be his, it perhaps remained unclear that this conclusion would be a selfless one.

It was thus within the Duke’s carefully constructed world that Angelo and Isabella’s conflict was played out. Jamie Ballard’s nervous, intense Angelo oddly retained the trappings of the Duke’s court, including the fetishised lamps who were instructed to leave before Isabella entered; perhaps pointing already to the incipient hypocrisy in his position. Sweating in Isabella’s presence, and almost petulant in his assumption of right, this Angelo was conflicted and insecure rather than dominant. A particularly amusing moment came in the final scene as the Duke instructed Angelo to laugh at Mariana’s claims, at which an artificial fixed grin belied by panicked eyes was forced onto the deputy’s face. His attempts to consolidate his position in the final scene sprung from the same panic, but when finally exposed, there were tears, and something of humility as he stood quietly next to his new wife.

Jodie McNee’s Isabella, a young and often emotional novice, made a decent foil. With her earthy Scouse accent, Isabella’s appeal was offered as a pragmatic and often weary appeal to mercy that, too often, she seemed not to believe in herself. Paul Chahidi’s Lucio took a strong role in setting her on, standing directly behind her during the initial interview and speaking into her ear in support. Yet there were moments of individually inspired spontaneity in her performance that humanised the character: she fell to her knees as Angelo announced that Claudio’s execution would happen tomorrow, the enormity of the moment suddenly hitting her. Later, she reacted with something approaching glee to the idea of the bed trick, the speed and confidence of her acceptance sitting uncomfortably with her earlier moral stance.

These central performances were muted, however, and the drama and interest of these scenes depended rather on the characters supporting them, as in the asides of the Duke and Lucio. What was at stake came alive in moments of extreme feeling, especially Isabella’s scream of rage at hearing of Claudio’s ‘death’; but these were few and far between. This muting wasn’t limited to these characters: Lucio and Mark Quartley's Claudio laughed at Claudio’s initial arrest, and Claudio showed a sanguinity throughout his imprisonment tht was only belied by the look thrown at him by the heavily pregnant Juliet, brought on with him in 1.2 but taken away in a different direction to his apparent indifference. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision to depict a society so preoccupied with sex that emotional intimacy was denied, but if so then it made for a somewhat cool drama. The objectifying glances of the smitten Duke at the departing Isabella, and his sharing of a ‘Phwaoarh’ with the audience were symptomatic of an ongoing detachment from human feeling.

Where the production did succeed, however, was in the creation of a fluid and engaging underworld. From the first moment where Lucio lifted his shirt in order to remove a pair of nipple clips left over after a particularly steamy session, Silbert established a world that was engagingly frank in its embracement of the messy and illicit. The long banter between Pompey, Froth and Elbow may have resulted in a refreshing outburst of frustration from Angelo, and an amused condescension from Escalus, but remained entertaining in itself as Elbow hopped up and down in frustration and a leering Pompey directed Froth in a show of grief and repentance.

Within a fantastical environment (including a woman dressed as a fountain), the simple performances of the supporting characters went a long way towards grounding the play in a representation of reality. Bruce Alexander's Provost, in particular, offered brusquely honest assessments of the stage action that established a straightforward, unsophisticated morality that undercut the machinations of the major characters, and his surprise at being offered a better position drew a sympathetic laugh from the audience. Annette McLaughlin's Mistress Overdone offered an almost dignified defence of her profession, and the deeply-spoken Abhorson spoke calmly of his profession’s mystery. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, was Lucio. While the character retained much of his arrogance and idiocy, particularly in the final scene, he also acted for the most part as a voice of reason and reflection, offering a practical and sensitive commentary on the plays’ problems. In Chahidi’s hands, the character retained his comic value in his occasional flamboyance and carelessness for the rules, but his relative consistence rendered his eventual punishment by the Duke rather petty.

Two standout comic performances served to lighten the tone throughout, but also to implicate the audience in the debauchery of Vienna. This was most explicit in the case of Joseph Kloska's Pompey. Emerging from a trapdoor in his new role as executioner, he proceeded to acknowledge his old clients from the brothel among the audience, adlibbing freely about balding pates, stripy jumpers and the shocking ability of a lady in the second row to sleep at night after her crimes. More bizarre, but quite wonderful, was the cameo of Daniel Stewart (Patrick Stewart's son) as Barnardine. Appearing first as a head, popping up through a flap in the stage, he screamed his drunken defiance at the audience. When he emerged fully, shirtless and with long lank hair and beard, he staggered about the stage, dodging Abhorson's axe blows and belching in an entirely careless manner, with something of Bertie Wooster's arrogance. In both his appearances, he drew spontaneous applause from an appreciative crowd.

The play culminated in a display of formal control, with the Duke’s seal dominating the stage and the Duke himself standing confidently centre-stage both in his own guise and as the Friar. As anticipated, the conclusion was clear directed through his own activity, the pieces falling into place perfectly. Yet the harshness of his initial threats against Mariana and Isabella, and the suddenness with which he announced his intent to marry Isabella, reminded us that he was primarily motivated by self-interest. In kneeling for his second proposal and holding out his hands, he finally exposed himself, and the few seconds for which Isabella remained silent felt long. For the first time ever in a production that I’ve seen, however, she eventually darted forward and took his hand, making a snap decision that rounded off the neatness of his schemes, while at the same time sacrificing her own independence of presence. The saucy jig that followed, with the actors rotating to engage in choreographed spanking, perhaps deliberately pointed out the underlying question of the final restitution of marital bonds – that these were not relationships built on equal measure, but on delicate balances of control and submission that resisted stability.


February 16, 2012

Stephen Fry

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-17055214

Stephen Fry playing Malvolio at Shakespeare's Globe? In an original practices production opposite Mark Rylance? This could genuinely be one of the most exciting theatrical events in some time; not necesarily because Fry will be good (we hope), but because the imposition of a widely-loved celebrity into an OP production throws up all kinds of exciting questions about audience response, horizons of expectation and the way in which we read actors as well as characters. I'm booked.


February 05, 2012

'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Cheek by Jowl) @ Warwick Arts Centre

Writing about web page http://www.cheekbyjowl.com/tis_pity_shes_a_whore.php

Cheek by Jowl have revolutionised my understanding of early modern dramatists time and again - Shakespeare with its Twelfth Night, Middleton with its The Changeling, and now John Ford with a stunning new 'Tis Pity. This was my third production of the play following an excellent student version at Warwick and a stripped-back domestic version at Liverpool, and the play has never ceased to amaze me. Yet Cheek by Jowl's unique physical environment and ongoing interrogation of theatrical space once more turned the play on its head for me, creating a powerfully contemporary piece that nonetheless spoke seriously to the play's dark heart.

Following Macbeth, the company has rediscovered sets. Building on devices used successfully in its Russian version of The Tempest, this production cleverly integrated a fixed stage image with the use of implied and partially glimpsed offstage sets to create clear stage loci that provided a focus for the fluid space. Ostensibly, the entire play took place in Annabella's bedroom. The walls were festooned with posters for vampire television series, classic movies and glam bands, and the large stage was dominated by a red double bed, with a couple of other pieces of furniture gesturing towards the shape of a bedroom. Through doors upstage could be glimpsed her en-suite bathroom and another space that became a reception room, hallway or other space as needed. Yet the space was a set, not a location. Fusing locus and platea in a daring inversion of theatrical space, the play played out in imagined, presented locations which nonetheless all somehow contained Annabella's bed, which became the uncontested focus of every man's gaze. The impression was clear, and in many ways both antithetical to and supportive of Sonia Masai's recent reclamation of the state and city participation in the play: here, whatever else was going on and wherever it was happening, everyone was simultaneously in Annabella's bedroom, attempting to possess or manage her sexuality, to colonise her bed in order to consolidate their own standing. The dynamics of state were exposed in relation to their ongoing possession of a teenage girl's private space.

Thus, the entire cast gathered on her bed to watch Vasques and Grimaldi duel over her; Hippolita stood atop it while she slept while simultaneously taking Soranzo to task over his abandonment of her; Florio sat on it while telling her who she must marry; Vasques wooed Putana on top of it while attempting to discover who had impregnated Annabella; and, finally, the bloodied Giovanni sat on it while carrying Annabella's heart. Ultimately, there was no space for her on it, except in a dismembered sense. From the start it was figured as the centre of attention - the play began with her watching DVDs on her laptop, then putting on music and dancing in the sexualised manner of MTV videos, while the rest of the company entered and danced in formation with her, following her lead as if puppeted by her. This tour de force opening also established the terms by which the play would take place - an overpowering sexuality which Annabella owned and the men wished to take from her.

The entire cast were frequently on stage, meaning that Annabella's every movement was watched and judged. This was not a critique of her actions, but of the watchers who allowed Giovanni free rein but attempted to keep the young girl imprisoned - after all, she was in many ways never able to leave her own bedroom. It also allowed for everyone to be present when referred to, linking the society of the play together in a single claustrophobic space that blurred the boundaries between public and private. Hippolita imaginarily but physically suffocating Annabella was a high point of these crossovers, but more significantly it served to yoke brother and sister throughout the play. Whether lying beside her bed, venerating her while speaking to the friar or filming her during the wedding celebrations, Giovanni was entirely obsessed with the image of his sister, pouring over into excess at every opportunity and, finally, locking her into her room in order that he could murder her.

The two young leads did a fine job. Lydia Wilson gave a physical and supple performance, performing for the men who treated her as a ballerina, a marionette or an icon (including in one spectacular comic moment as Soranzo's hyperbole manifested visually as she stood atop the bed and was crowned as an icon of Mary while the male cast members stripped to their waist and created a tableau of adoration). Jack Gordon's Giovanni, meanwhile, was socially awkward, stilted in speech and focused on one thing. The space between them was kept deliberately obvious at first, and as they admitted their feelings they knelt on either side of the bed, holding hands across to each other before jumping under the sheets. The same pose was replicated at the play's end as she pleaded for her life, the bed now becoming a barrier between them. Fittingly, he brought her up onto the bed and, while they stood, snapped her neck in a moment of shocking brutality.

The visceral nature of the action was made explicit by the fantastic use made of the bathroom. It was in here that Putana and Annabella had their heart-to-heart conversations, while silent male listeners stood outside the door. It was here that Annabella fled to when first throwing up after realising her pregnancy, and where Putana kept the supplies that allowed her to put scent in the room and cover up all traces of sexual activity. Shockingly, it was into the bathroom that a furious Soranzo later forced Annabella, returning only to grab a coathanger from the bedroom with which to perform an amateur abortion, prevented only by Vasques. And it was in here that Giovanni deposited a toolbox before killing Annabella. He took her body into the room and sounds of sawing were heard as the partygoers returned to the stage. The final image was of the cast walking one by one to the door of the bathroom and reacting to what they saw there (we could only see a streak of blood across the wall), closing the play on the final gaze of the spectators who had ultimately all contributed to her death.

The production's clear sympathy with Annabella gave the production a singular attention that extended to the cutting of all subplots - as in the Liverpool production, Bergetto and Poggio, Richardetto (though an anonymous doctor was retained) and Philotis were all cut. Grimaldi and Donado were reduced to single scenes, and even Vasques was heavily cut, losing his part in the final scene. Significantly, the play closed on the gaze at Annabella's body and the distant sound of sirens; but Giovanni remained alive, even as his father keeled over onto the bed beside him. This was not Giovanni's story, other than as the ultimate persecutor of Annabella - he was denied his own tragic conclusion.

However, the Hippolita plot was played out in full length (bar the cutting of Richardetto), offering a contrast to the main story. Suzanne Burden played an aging widow, striving to keep herself young with heavy make-up and attempting to play the vamp to the younger men, including Vasques, who knelt before her in show of obsession with her, playing to her fantasy. Her story was deeply affecting, her attempt to maintain dignity drawing attention to her entire lack of power. For her 'masque', she entered as a masked singer, serenading the wedding party in a back room while Vasques, alone onstage, fixed the drinks. The production played her final joining of the lovers as a convivial joke, and the company continued to laugh as she slowly died, only gradually realising that her cries were real. Yet she was denied a formal mourning, the production instead merging seamlessly into the wedding night, Soranzo beginning to woo Annabella even as the bodies were cleared from the stage. Interestingly, the rant was played initially as bedroom banter; it was only as Annabella (apparently willing to have sex) cried out as Soranzo kissed her bare stomach that he realised she was pregnant. Jack Hawkins was magnificent in this scene, bringing a menace and violence to the character that stemmed from a place of deep-rooted shock. Again, he survived in the play's conclusion, not as a vindication of his violent and controlling actions, but rather in a statement of defiant irrelevance - ultimately, we were not expected to care what happens to any of these men.

The atrocities mounted up elsewhere. Lizzie Hopley's Putana provided comic relief for much of the play, bantering in a naturalistic way that contrasted with the outward-facing delivery of much of the play's dialogue, and concentrating on controlling the represented environment. Yet the character was central to the female-centred reading of the play. Following the wedding, Putana entered to clean her charge's old bedroom, and her quiet actions as she walked around the room - trying on the girl's Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, taking out some old clothes, stealing a chocolate from their usual hiding place - was heartbreaking, she dealing with the loss of her companion. Vasques's subsequent manipulation of her was horrific. He flirted with her on the bed, feeding her chocolates and a glass of wine and flattering her. Then, he arranged for a stripper to enter, who danced for her on the bed and drew her into a gyrating threesome with Vasques. As she finally admitted Annabella's lover, the stripper left the bed while Vasques sat in thought, and she attempted to keep the sexual energy going. On a nod, the stripper came to the bed, pinned her down and began kissing her roughly on the mouth, finally pulling out her tongue with his teeth. She was taken off-stage, screaming wordlessly.

The juxtaposition of the horrific and the hysteric(al) worked powerfully throughout, particularly in a self-consciously bizarre ending as the Cardinal entered and the entire company danced in unison while the bloodied Giovanni walked among them. The images that remained, though, were those of the violence done to women, and Annabella's posters served to remind us of how these images are reinforced at every level of society. The play's title, usually spoken as the final line, was here pointedly removed; there was no whore here, only society's insistence on treating her as one. Beneath the loud music, the dancing, the contemporary references and the tongue in cheek humour, this was one of the most desperate and heartfelt cries against the cultural repression of women that I've yet seen, and to my mind pointed up Ford's own treatment of Annabella, not as a whore, but as a heroine wronged by the society that traps and shapes her.


February 02, 2012

The Winter's Tale (Propeller) @ Sheffield Lyceum

Writing about web page http://propeller.org.uk/current-productions/henry-v-and-the-winters-tale

Edward Hall's company Propeller has always been playful. Whether entertaining audiences in foyers, offering grand guignol torture scenes or turning Portia into a drag queen, the company has delighted in its own performativity. In doing so, their shows tread a fine line between the parodic and the emotive. While elements of the farcicial and ridiculous occasionally threatened to tip the play over into music-hall, at the heart of Propeller's philosophy is a devotion to text and to the human heart of Shakespeare's plays. As such, while the music, nudity and belly-laughs may have got the biggest reactions from the Sheffield audience, this was in many ways the quietest and chillest Winter's Tale I've ever seen.

The key innovation here was the foregrounding of Mamillius. From the start, Leontes' palace was established as his son's playground. Ben Allen, in pyjamas and shuffling and shrugging with all the self-consciousness of the overgrown child, played with a set of modelling dolls scattered around the stage as sand fell from the ceiling and filled a small wheelbarrow. Three of the dolls - dressed as Hermione, Polixenes and Leontes - gave the child the opportunity to indicate his awareness of the growing tensions, as he pushed them together in positions of love and aggression. The ominous nature of this opening was heightened by the appearance of men in the shadows, holding brandy glasses which they rubbed to create an eerie tone that quickly became unbearable, an effect repeated at key moments throughout the play.

The scene sprang into life, and Mamillius ran about the stage, gleefully playing with the adults who laughed at his antics. Drawing, as ever, on the dynamics of male social rituals that an all-male cast brings to the fore, this was a raucous company, bandying innuendoes and sharing cigars as they celebrated their own egos. Richard Dempsey's heavily pregnant Hermione moved gracefully among the men, offering her own share of quick quips and giving the men as good as they got.

Winter

The rot set in quickly, and Mamillius remained the focus throughout. Leontes (Robert Hands) alternately held his son closely and barked at him to leave while glaring at Hermione and Polixenes, reduced to slow motion and holding hands playfully. Hands trod a fine balance between outbursts of rage and the internalisation of his jealousy, keeping the scene as rooted in psychological credibility as possible. Yet Propeller's performance style depends a great deal on direct address, thus allowing Hands to explain rather than perform his rage, while Mamillius watched on.

The aim throughout the first act was to contrast Leontes' blustering patriarchal rage (implicitly supported by the lackeys who had laughed at every joke in the earlier scenes) with the stillness and sensibility of the play's women and children. Shockingly, when interrupting the women's private scene, Leontes picked up the heavily pregnant Hermione under her stomach, and dropped her heavily back on her feet, leaving her in pain as she went into early labour. Despite this, Dempsey offered a wonderful display of pained restraint, gathering her composure as she wished him to be sorry. Mamillius' own decline began at this point as he watched his mother led away, and subsequently he appeared on a balcony overlooking the stage. A further moment of tension was added as Vince Leigh's fascinating Paulina - earrings and loose trousers differentiating her status, but giving her an odd sense of authority - brought in a tiny bundle of clothes to present to Leontes and laid it at his feet, giving the impression that he could at any moment stamp on the child's head.

The speeded-up first half cut Cleomenes and Dion's brief scene and split the opening dialogue between the entire cast, who commented on Mamillius as he played, again keeping the focus on the core family- even Nicholas Asbury's rather tempestuous Polixenes and Chris Myles's somewhat scheming Camillo were passed over quickly. The emotional payoff came in the trial scene, where Hermione - shaven-headed and still wearing her bloody birthing robe - was brought to stand before a microphone as paparazzi in the stalls snapped pictures and yelled comments. The contrast between her continuing steadfastness and Leontes' manic activity was clear, and cleverly switched as Leontes became still as he read the prophecy while Hermione and the rest of the company relaxed. The actual moment of his rejection was passed over too quickly for it to be really effective, his words immediately covered by a crash of thunder and the news of Mamillius' death, not giving opportunity for the severity of his statement to be registered. However, as children and women vanished from the scene, the effect was certainly felt.

The transition into the interval again focused around Mamillius, who re-entered as Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Antigonus placed the baby on an empy stage. As thunder rolled and the noise of a bear was heard, Mamillius produced a doll of Antigonus and a toy bear, and he proceeded to act out the graphic savagery of the attack with the gusto of a child. The playfulness of this moment jarred effectively against the horror of the imagined scene, and played well into the leisurely introduction of John Dougall's fantastic Yorkshire farmer and Karl Davies's hyperactive Young Shepherd. Following the interval, the transition was made complete as Mamillius reappeared and delivered the Chorus in the person of Time, introducing the characters of the second half by bringing them on stage and adding some grey make-up to Camillo and Polixenes while himself taking over Perdita's role.

Bohemia rather obviously drew on a 60s aesthetic, combining a Woodstock hippy enclave with a rock n'roll band set up announcing itself as "The Bleatles". What made these scenes stand out was their sheer energy and hysterical inventiveness, forming a fantastic contrast with the rather steady scenes of the first half. The cast became a Chorus of sheep, wearing woolly leg warmers and hats, who acted as the onstage band when not in character. Tony Bell, so fantastic as Dr. Pinch in last year's Comedy of Errors, essentially reprised his role in the form of Autolycus, appearing from stage mist as if Mick Jagger and leading the sheep in a range of glammy rock songs, interspersed with crude comments to ladies in the audience. Bell, as ever, owned the stage whenever he was on, particularly in a wonderful routine with Davies which began with pinching his pockets and ended with him removing the latter's shorts as he strode confidently offstage.

The sheep-shearing feast, so often interminable, was here joyous. Heavily cut, but featuring some wonderful dance routines led by Dempsey's Dorcas and Gunnar Cauthery as Mopsa, the scene captured the carnival atmosphere with a series of comic highlights, such as the appearance of Polixenes and Camillo disguised as a scoutmaster and a (moustachioed) girl guide and a full-on scrap between Mopsa and Dorcas. Colourful and vibrant, the pleasure of this scene made the eventual revelation of Polixenes, and the trauma of the country folk (Dougall simply sat down, a sublime moment that fully captured the Old Shepherd's shock with the simplest of gestures) all the more powerful. The working out of the plot was little more than a working out, although Bell's impersonation of a courtier and the tremulous fear of the two Shepherds was genuinely funny, but the whole served to set up a fine denouement.

Leontes reappeared in a wheelchair, pushed gently by Paulina. He took Florizel and Perdita to his arms, giving the non-verbal promise of support even as he criticised their dishonesty, and threw away his walking stick as he followed them off-stage to meet his old friend. The power of the scene was in the joy shown by a character who had thus far shown none, leading us into an expectation of warmth. The reunion scene was played out in a series of tableaux while members of the cast narrated the meeting; and then all gathered for the conclusion. Through a clever piece of stage misdirection, Hermione was 'revealed' downstage, facing away from the audience and still enough to create the illusion of non-movement. As she came to life, the company played out the awe and reverence of the moment to the soft notes of a piano, all taking hands and underplaying emotion, building beautifully to Leontes' expected happiness. Yet as he reunited Polixenes and Hermione, he found himself excluded. Holding a candle as the rest of the stage lights dimmed, he moved towards each of his family members, who retreated away into the shadows. As he grew more isolated in the light of his candle, Mamillius suddenly reappeared (Allen having made a quick costume change). Leontes opened his mouth in hope and stepped towards his lost son. Mamillius shook his head quietly and, in a gesture that chillingly ended the production on a reminder of the consequences of jealousy, blew out the candle.


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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